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Saving coffee from extinction


In 2013 WCR thought it had found a gold mine of genetic variation – 870 strains of wild Arabica coffee, growing in Costa Rica’s Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Education. The plants had been collected in Ethiopia the 1960s by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and distributed to more than a dozen countries in an effort to increase diversity – this was one of the only collections to survive.

“We took every one of those strains and sequenced the DNA strands and matched them one by one to see what diversity there was,” says Schilling. “We got the results back in the beginning of the year and there was amazingly little diversity. It was a big shock. We knew it was small, but not that small.”

“As a result, we don’t have the diversity in available Arabica coffees that we need for the next 200 years.”


On average 32 hands touch the coffee beans before reaching your cup – these are number six in the chain.

Lack of diversity in crops can have disastrous consequences – it makes them more susceptible to disease. And coffee has a foe – coffee leaf rust. The fungus wiped out Sri Lanka’s coffee plantations entirely in the late 1800s, and there was a bad outbreak in 2013 in Central America. The coffee grown there had no resistance to the disease – the crop relied on the protection of low temperatures at higher altitudes.

This is why Schilling is embarking on an ambitious plan – “to recreate Arabica, but with better breeding.”

The origins of Arabica are pretty extraordinary. It is a hybrid of two types of coffee, C eugenioides and C canephora (Robusta coffee).

“It’s a love story actually,” says Schilling. “Arabica has two parents that met some 10-15,000 years ago and combined to create Arabica. It was a one-time-only event, a one-night stand, if you will.

“So even from the get-go, the genetic base was not that big, just one C eugenioides getting it on with one C canephora.”

He now intends to recreate that hybrid and improve on it. “What we aim to do is to get a bunch of highly diverse C eugenioides and C canephora and cross them, to recreate C arabica but better – more diverse.”

Schilling points out that this is not genetic engineering, but old-fashioned breeding, using modern techniques – and that it could take decades.

In the shorter term, WCR has decided to start another breeding programme, too. “We need to take all the good things of Robusta and combine them with Arabica,” he says. “Robusta is hardy and produces a lot, but it has a notoriously awful taste.”

It may seem obvious, but taste is the critical factor in any breeding programme. This aspect has been ignored in the past, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

In the late 1800s, after coffee leaf rust devastated the Arabica plantations in Sri Lanka, the British government decided to grow a new type of coffee: Liberica. They tried in vain to convince the public that it would be a good substitute. “Liberica is a strong grower and a prolific cropper but it just doesn’t taste very good, and for many tastes a bit like vegetable soup,” says Davis.

The Ceylon Observer recorded the venture’s dismal failure in a series of articles. “They start off saying it is great coffee. Then, five years later: ‘Well it will be good for the US market, they like strong coffee,’ to: ‘Will anybody drink this coffee?'” says Davis.

So does nothing taste as good as Arabica? “Coffea stenophylla, sometimes known as the highland coffee of Sierra Leone, is supposed to be incredible,” says Schilling. Drunk locally, in 1896 it was described by Kew as one of the two species of coffee which could “prove a formidable rival of the Arabian coffee” – the other was Liberica. Who knows, if the British had opted for C stenophylla instead, what coffee would taste like today.

Davis is not sure the answer lies in using different species of coffee. “Most wild coffee species either don’t taste very good or produce small crops, although there are some species that could have potential, either as crops themselves or as part of breeding programmes. But this won’t happen overnight,” he says.

This is why the work of Kew and its partners, especially those in Ethiopia, to safeguard the existing indigenous population of wild Arabica is so vital – the hope is that this will provide the tools to ensure coffee’s survival.

Source: BBC

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